Photo by Kevin Coombs / Reuters.
Over the past five years, the sociologists Daniel Laurison and Sam Friedman have uncovered a striking, consistent pattern in data about England’s workforce: Not only are people born into working-class families far less likely than those born wealthy to get an elite job—but they also, on average, earn 16 percent less in the same fields of work.
Laurison and Friedman dug further into the data, but statistical analyses could only get them so far. So they immersed themselves in the cultures of modern workplaces, speaking with workers—around 175 in all—in four prestigious professional settings: a TV-broadcasting company, a multinational accounting firm, an architecture firm, and the world of self-employed actors.
The result of this research is Laurison and Friedman’s book, The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays to Be Privileged, which shows how the customs of elite workplaces can favor those who grew up wealthier. The authors describe a series of “hidden mechanisms”—such as unwritten codes of office behavior and informal systems of professional advancement—that benefit the already affluent while disadvantaging those with working-class backgrounds.
In January 2019, shortly before the book’s U.K. release, I interviewed Laurison, a professor at Swarthmore College, who told me that while England’s class politics do differ from those of the U.S., his and Friedman’s findings about “money, connections, and culture” broadly apply to Americans as well. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Joe Pinsker: In the book, you write about a financial cushion available to certain college graduates that you refer to as “the bank of mom and dad.” How does this work, and what are its consequences for who gets a chance at certain jobs?
Daniel Laurison: I think the image that we have—or the ideology, if you want to be political about it—is once you’re 18 or so, you make your own way and your class origin is not an important part of how your career goes from there. But what my co-author Sam and I found was, that’s not at all true.
In the book, we talked about people pursuing acting, which is a very contingent, hard path to pursue. Most people, when they start, aren’t making most of their money from acting, and so people who are able to rely on their parents to help them are much more able to pursue acting fully, because they don’t have to worry about maintaining a regular, full-time job just to eat and live.
That’s the starkest example in the book, but there are lots of other ways that having money from your parents can make a difference in your career. In the U.K., if you work in London, you’re likely to earn a lot more, and you’re more likely to be at the center of your field. And living in London is very expensive. So a lot of people who are living in London got some help from their parents to make a down payment on a house or some help with the rent, which was the case in fields other than acting, too. And the other place I think parents’ help makes a big difference is in who can take unpaid or very low-paid internships, which are the entry points for lots of high-status, high-paid careers.
Pinsker: And once people get these sorts of jobs, you write about the importance of “sponsorship”—basically, when some senior employee informally takes someone younger under their wing and helps them advance through the company. What did you notice about how those systems of sponsorship worked?
Laurison: I think that a lot of people, on some level what they think they’re doing when they sponsor young co-workers is spotting talent—they called it “talent-mapping” in the accounting firm we studied. But a lot of people we talked to were also able to reflect and say, “Part of why I was excited about that person, probably, is because they reminded me of a younger version of myself.” The word we use in sociology is homophily—people like people who are like themselves.
One of the big ideas of the book, for me, is it’s really hard for any given individual in any given situation to fully parse what’s actual talent or intelligence or merit, and what’s, Gosh, that person reminds me of me, or I feel an affinity for them because we can talk about skiing or our trips to the Bahamas. Part of it is also that what your criteria are for a good worker often comes from what you think makes you a good worker.
Pinsker: In the workplaces you studied, who tended to lose out in these systems of sponsorship?
Laurison: In three of the four fields we studied, it was poor and working-class people, and also women and people of color. There are lots of axes along which homophily can cloud senior people’s judgment about who’s meritorious.
Pinsker: You also talk a lot about the unwritten codes of behavior that can shape who advances and who doesn’t at certain workplaces. What’s an example of how that played out?
Laurison: Probably the best example of this is the television-production firm we studied. The name that we gave to the culture there was “studied informality”—nobody wore suits and ties, nobody even wore standard business casual. People were wearing sneakers and all kinds of casual, fashionable clothes. There was a sort of “right” way to do it and a “wrong” way to do it: A number of people talked about this one man—who was black and from a working-class background—who just stood out. He worked there for a while and eventually left. He wore tracksuits, and the ways he chose to be casual and fashionable were not the ways that everybody else did.
There were all kinds of things, like who puts their feet up on the table and when they do it, when they swear—things that don’t seem like what you might expect from a place full of high-prestige, powerful television producers. But that was in some ways, I think, more off-putting and harder to navigate for some of our working-class respondents than hearing “just wear a suit and tie every day” might have been. The rules weren’t obvious, but everybody else seemed to know them.
Pinsker: And trying to figure that out comes at an emotional and psychological cost, no?
Laurison: For a lot of people from poor and working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds, being in these environments felt like you had to put on a performance all day. They didn’t feel at home and comfortable in their work environment—even people who had been quite successful, who had gotten toward the top of their occupations.
Part of that is because folks are comfortable in the culture, the class, the location, the people who they grew up with. And working in an occupation or professional culture that is radically different in some ways than what your family knows and does is challenging. But one way to address this is to change workplace cultures to be closer to what poor and working-class people—and women, racial and ethnic minorities, and other historically excluded groups—bring rather than just trying to teach those “others” how to adapt.
Pinsker: In the book, it was jarring to see over and over how invisible all of these processes tend to be, and how this obscures the way that people actually get and then excel in elite jobs. Some people you talked to clearly downplayed the help they’d gotten—what do you think was behind that?
Laurison: In both the U.S. and the U.K., there’s a really strong, widely shared implicit belief—in the U.S., it’s the American dream—that success and worth are nearly identical, that if you are really rich, you must be really smart and hardworking, and if you are poor, you must have messed up in some really big way. People want to believe that they got where they are because they’re smart and talented. And that’s often true to some extent, but it’s also true that there’s any number of people who are probably equally smart and talented who are not in their positions, because of the barriers that are erected. It’s hard to sit with the idea that maybe somebody else deserves to be where they are more than they do, and I think almost everybody wants to be able to tell a story of making it on their own.
A lot of the book is about the barriers that exist, but you can take that argument too far. I wouldn’t say that most of the really successful people we interviewed were bad at their jobs. But I think, for a lot of people, examining the ways that privileges you have are unearned is the same thing as saying “You are bad” or “You don’t deserve anything,” because we’ve got this deep connection between ideas of worth and ideas of success.
Pinsker: Having finished a research project like this, what do you think needs to change about the way these workplaces function? Do you think there are things that companies could do better?
Laurison: On one level, as long as access to education and jobs is unequal in terms of race, in terms of class, you’re not going to have equal representation of all the parts of society in many prestigious or exclusive occupations. So in a way, it’s about much bigger questions than a single company can deal with.
At the same time, I think there really are things that companies can do. You can affirmatively try to hire the people who don’t look like the people who are already there in terms of their race, gender, class origin, and other statuses. And you can try to think about what expectations or cultures at your firm are not really about the outcomes your firm needs to pay the most attention to.
To give an example from my own work, I know that in colleges and universities, students from poor and working-class backgrounds are much less likely to feel comfortable going to office hours than everybody else. So I require everybody, of any class background, to come talk to me, in an effort to make office hours open to everybody. I think there are analogies in other fields—there are unwritten rules where we can figure out what the norms are and then be explicit about them.
But still, there’s this larger question of how much inequality there is in the first place. If it wasn’t possible for somebody to make 10 times, 15 times what someone else does at the same organization, then it would matter a lot less how far people got in different organizations in terms of their earnings. And the broader context of the book is that part of what legitimizes big inequalities is the belief that outcomes are meritocratic.